March 1, 2004

A year at the Schwartz Center

Rosemary Magee is senior associate dean of Emory College.

No doubt we've all experienced a performance that became part of us–woven into the fiber of our being–for days and weeks. Afterwards, we see the world differently, almost as though our senses have been restored to their highest, finest settings.

Last month I was fortunate enough to join others in the Emory community at such a performance by one of Europe's most renowned opera ensembles, Les Arts Florissants. The ensemble made only three other stops during its U.S. tour: Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Washington's Kennedy Center and New York's Lincoln Center. With the help of the magnificent acoustics and serene architecture of Emerson Concert Hall at the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the artists transported us to the 17th century and a worldview that seemed strangely immediate, intimate and knowable.

After the concert, as I drove home (reluctantly returning to the mindset of a 21st century motorist), I was struck once again by the impact the arts can have on our lives. Attending a concert is so profoundly different from listening to music in the car, or in our living rooms. As members of the audience, we experience feelings that are both intensely public and private--we take part in a dynamic relationship with performers and fellow audience members. All the while, we are deeply, privately engaged in an experience that celebrates the common seeds of our humanity.

It seems oddly ironic that attending a public performance can enhance the life of the interior. As days get busier and traffic grows worse, we naturally want to withdraw and seek out the solace of home and family. But an encounter with art can provide a special kind of knowledge, not just a diversion. In the words of Robert Shaw, "The arts are not simply skills; their concern is the intellectual, ethical and spiritual maturity of human life."

Over the past month alone, in addition to Les Arts Florissants, the Emory community has experienced a flowering of performances across campus--such as Leap, produced by Theater Emory and written by Lauren Gunderson, a recent Emory College graduate; the Emory Gamelan Ensemble playing the traditional music of Java; the Vega String Quartet; batiks of enormous beauty in the Math & Science Center; art programs in the Carlos Museum; preparations for "Boundless," an exhibit tracing the history of dance at Emory; poetry readings, and more.

Within these artistic events, students and faculty are as likely to be a composer, actor or dancer as an audience member. Thus we come to see that Emory is building the wonder and pleasure of art--and the dream of possibility–into the lives of students, professors and staff. At the same time, the greater Atlanta community also is discovering Emory as a destination for the arts. Fittingly, artistic expression will have a prominent role in President Jim Wagner's inauguration this spring, formally signaling a new chapter in our lives together.

With the opening one year ago of the Schwartz Center, we have seen the arts assume a more visible, central place on this campus. Upon entering the finished building, Donna Schwartz said she felt rewarded knowing that the performing arts would no longer take a backseat to other disciplines at Emory.

A few days ago, while waiting for the red light to change at North Decatur and Clifton, I looked around, trying to imagine this busy intersection from the eyes of a visitor or passerby. Housed within a stone's throw from each other are buildings for religion, law, business, health sciences, humanistic inquiry and Russian and East Asian languages. Now, with the addition of the performing arts, this crossroads more fully epitomizes Emory's mission "to help men and women fully develop their intellectual, aesthetic and moral capacities."

But the possibilities extend beyond this elegant new building. Throughout the planning process, many people dedicated themselves to developing an identity and presence for the arts across campus from the Burlington Road Building to Glenn Auditorium, Carlos Museum, Cannon Chapel, Mary Gray Munroe Theater and the Visual Arts Building.

Thus, art surrounds us–sometimes even catches us by surprise. Last year, when students and faculty returned from spring break, they saw that chairs of all shapes and sizes had materialized on campus, as if by magic. The Emory Chairs Project reminded the community that encounters with art do not always unfold according to a plan or schedule--and if chairs can be art, then what else surrounds us that we did not see before? Public art, such as the recently installed Sol LeWitt sculpture near the Quadrangle, requires us to ask new questions of ourselves and others. As the poet Edward Hirsch writes, "Life has to have the plenitude of art." So, too, does a college campus.

In the process of enhancing the arts experience at Emory, we have stretched our collaborative imagination, becoming an even stronger, more dynamic community. When a group of faculty first began discussing the needs of the performing arts center in 1995, we agreed that one of our goals would be to create high-quality teaching and performance spaces in a multidisciplinary facility responsive to the campus environment.

Of course, the hardest part was realizing that we couldn't do everything we wanted at once. But faculty from music, dance, film and theater began a process of dreaming, looking at current programs and future plans, and after many different rounds, pressing the most critical needs.

The big picture embraced by all included a concert hall capable of hosting a full orchestra (such as the Emory Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic) or a smaller ensemble's recital (such as the Wayne Shorter Quartet or Thamyris, a new music ensemble).

Dancers also would enjoy a dedicated studio--actually the first performance space in Atlanta built solely for dance. And theater would benefit from a director's laboratory that could be used as a rehearsal studio, or for readings and developing new works. All of the spaces would be academic, supporting both the teaching and research missions of the University.

Turning these dreams and plans into reality fell to alumni, faculty, staff and trustees. The lead gift from the Schwartzes of $8 million prepared the way for contributions from more than 700 individuals. Among this diverse group of donors, 27 percent gave their largest gift ever and 12 percent made a gift for the first time.

Meanwhile, we are moving forward with new programs, spaces and possibilities. The Emory Coca-Cola Artists-in-Residence Series allows visiting musicians and ensembles such as pianist Christopher O'Riley and the Bang on a Can All-Stars to extend their stay at Emory and engage students and the community in master classes and more. Collaborative enterprises include a multidisciplinary set of freshman seminars on creativity, the construction of a custom-built pipe organ (with 3,605 pipes), and the planning of facilities such as an expanded gallery for the Visual Arts Program, as well as additional theater spaces, screening room and dance studio.

After extensive preparation and work, we can safely say that we have laid the foundation for the arts to flourish on campus in ways not yet fully imagined. Naturally, as we've developed a stronger arts presence at Emory, we've also created greater energies, remarkable synergies and higher ambitions--with the spectacular complexity of the enterprise expanding each day. And so collectively we must continue to ponder the role of art in our world, in an intellectual community, on this campus. How can the arts become fully embedded in our shared experience as students, scholars, scientists, artists and teachers?

These are matters to consider together–during casual conversations, in rare moments of reverie, in classes, at concerts, in meetings, at art exhibits, or as we are driving home–all while realizing there is no single or final answer. But, as with art itself, we will find true pleasure and new insights, public and private, in the very process of discovery.